Betty Butterfield on Gerald Ford in 1976.
Robert B. Livingston
December 27, 2013
America is smiling again: revisiting a relic from America's dark past
I find it difficult to adequately describe the artistry of comedian Chuck Knipp at his satirical best-- and I consider this video a good introduction to some of his more brilliant humor.
Knipp's specialty is to absorb or expose the nightmares and sick moments associated with some of our common experiences, hypocrisies, prejudices, doubts, or fears-- and then to exorcise them with his keen and decadent humor. Maybe we are made a bit wiser and less vulnerable by it.
In this video clip, Knipp has resurrected an historical US presidential campaign commercial by simply retitling it "Betty Butterfield Ford '76."
It is as mesmerizing as it is haunting, and I suggest that it needs to be viewed several times if one is to take note of its subtler components.
Unlike some of Knipp's other self-produced short films which can be cruel or vulgar (not recommended for kids or the politically correct), this film, among some other films of his which can be side-splitting, pushes the art of satire to a novel edge.
For those who don't know, Betty Butterfield is a fictional character played by Knipp-- in glaring drag-- of an overweight, chain-smoking, alcoholic, maudlin and garishly made-up woman who would easily be construed as trailer trash. She is forever seeking an escape from her drab and constrained existence in one banal form or another, which includes her unending search for a religious affiliation which might unconditionally accept her (inevitably impossible, perhaps, because only the Deity could ignore her many faults-- and then too, Betty Butterfield is picky).
In watching this old campaign commercial, one may think of Betty, or her creator Knipp-- and wonder what it is about it that so fascinates them-- and us.
I would venture to say that the dark humor is buried within suggestions of disturbing truths unwittingly revealed by it, especially as this prime-time relic is viewed with hindsight.
At his sharpest, Knipp's genius is his ability to reflect the darkest aspects of ourselves and our world in a startling way not unlike how a child's first becoming aware of its reflection in a mirror awakens the child to becoming aware of itself as a unique individual. This commercial is a mirror of a sort: a reflection of ourselves as reliable sleep-walking dupes-- wishing for some magic to transform our lives when there is none, really.
The commercial itself is a tight packaging of a candidate who is promoted as just the right man at the right time to do the right job for America: a formula that seems to stand the test of time, still relied on to make slick presidential campaign commercials today.
Viewing it, one can immediately guess that this candidate will win, has already won-- because the ad covers all the emotional bases in a timely way-- and at the same time really covers absolutely nothing substantial. It is all hollow and false: pure propaganda promoting an almost childish caricature of Integrity. (I am convinced that Barack Obama is at his essence more similar to Gerald Ford than any other president he is ever compared to.)
In the campaign commercial we see a paternalistic Gerald Ford, a nondescript almost-nobody, he could be you, he could be me, a man whose actual rise to power was boosted by being a trusted participant on the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination.
We see him studiously attending chores at his desk in the Oval Office (does he have a thought in his head?), as a team-player (with budding neocons, who would later put their own heavy imprint on the violent and terror-ridden era we live in today). We see Ford clinking a toast with Queen Elizabeth (to what?). And we see Ford as an everyman with a firm grip (choke?) on his faithful dog. The way he is bowed and smiling, we half expect to see his own tongue roll out (is he not a sort of dog himself, eager to fetch and please?).
The poor but adequate resolution of the copied commercial adds something sinister to Ford's smile, it looks like he is chewing-- although we know, of course, it was never meant to be that way. We know the original was as smooth and confidence-building as any convincing Madison Avenue advertisement. (Ford had in his earlier career been a male model.)
The commercial also shows us photos of Betty Ford, a dedicated wife glowing with exuberance and adoration for her husband with whom (and with us) she can share the fulfilling of the American Dream.
In retrospect, we know today her glow probably had other sources, and can guess that the clinic she would later found would never admit anyone similar to Knipp's fictional Betty, who get their medical and mental health advice from the National Enquirer.
Because Chuck Knipp pushes as far as he can to the edge in his art and comedy, he is a curiosity, hard to classify, or to extol. His strangest films are dumbfounding, and rarely get comments or criticism at the Internet Archive or elsewhere. That is too bad, because I believe he contributes some vital, if marginalized, perspectives through his humor which are, I believe, more misunderstood than appreciated.
In retrospect of my own experience, I find Ford's '76 campaign commercial and commercials that resemble it to be truly vulgar because of their hidden deceit and treachery. Chuck Knipp can be thanked for helping strip them of their brainwashing power.
Knipp shares many qualities with the humorist Barry Humphries. Knipp is more raw, more courageous, often less palatable, less funny, but more unforgettable. I don't follow his career, but guess it can't be easy for him.